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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Grande Fantasie sur des Airs polonais Op. 13 (1828, arr. for piano and string quintet) [14:33]
Songs Op. 74 (selection) (1857) [14:04]
Piano Trio Op. 8 (1833, arr. for viola, cello and piano) [30:26]
Krakowiak Op. 14 (1828, arr. for piano and string quintet) [15:12]
Johann Blanchard (piano)
Parnassus Akademie
rec. 2017/18, Konzerthaus der Abtel, Marienmünster, Germany
MDG 303 2110-2 [74:19]

This is a curious programme which needs some explaining. Chopin wrote only four pieces of chamber music. Three of them are early, two works for cello and piano, not included here, and the piano trio, which is, but in a variant version. The fourth, also not included here, is the late Cello Sonata, Op. 65, which is a masterpiece. The early pieces are not: they are apprentice works, though you can occasionally hear the mature composer beginning to come through. Interestingly, all four works involve the cello, which was clearly Chopin’s second favourite instrument, though a long way behind the piano. All this disc is made up of arrangements.

We begin with the Grande Fantasie sur des Airs polonais, which is one of Chopin’s four concertante works other than the concertos. These are all early, written before he left Poland, as indeed are the two concertos. They used to be played in concerts when short concertante works were popular. Then they became useful fillers for vinyl records of the concertos, as their playing time could not accommodate both concertos on one disc. CDs can, and so they fell out of favour again. They are, however, delightful pieces, and let me recommend in passing Jan Lisiecki’s recording of all four together (review). The Grande Fantasie is basically a sequence of three folk tunes, increasingly decorated, of which the third, the kujawiak, a kind of mazurka, is the liveliest. It is a virtuoso display piece, as indeed is the Krakowiak, which ends the programme. This is a splendidly vigorous dance with syncopations and off-beat accents. Both these works are played here in arrangements in which a string quintet, a quartet with double bass, replaces the original orchestra. This is not as damaging as it may seem, as Chopin’s orchestral is notoriously unimaginative and usually simply accompanies the piano. (Actually it is rather more imaginative in the Krakowiak, but it is a small matter.) In fact, it seems that Chopin himself sometimes played these works with reduced forces, so to do so is not as inauthentic as may first appear.

The Piano Trio itself is a surprisingly unadventurous work. There are four movements, of which the first has a rather fierce Beethovenian opening, a Scherzo placed second, an attractive slow movement and a vigorous finale, in my view the best movement of the four. The work has been praised as a neglected masterpiece, which it is surely not, and criticized because of the unadventurous writing for the violin, which never uses the high register. In fact, when Chopin offered it for publication the viola was noted as an alternative to the violin, and that is what we have here. This needed some recasting of the violin line, but not much, and the result is certainly acceptable, though of course it cannot improve the piece.

The rest of the programme is given to arrangements of six of Chopin’s songs. Chopin wrote songs throughout his composing life, but did not perform or publish them and thought little of them. After his death they were collected and published as his Op. 74 – a few others turned up later – with texts in Polish and German. They are rarely performed as songs, but six of them have become better known through their piano transcriptions by Liszt, titled Six chants polonais, S. 480. We have six of them here, of which two are the same as Liszt’s choices. They are in two groups of three. The booklet points out that they are kept in the same keys as the original but omits to mention that, as they have been transcribed for the cello, they have been put down an octave. These are pleasant enough.

The pianist Johann Blanchard has the lion’s share of the work here and plays with great poetry and is excellent in the dreamier moments. Although he is light-fingered enough for the virtuoso passages, these do not have as much sparkle as I could wish. Next, the cellist Michael Groß plays in every work and has an attractive tone and lyrical phrasing. No complaints about the other members of Parnassus Akademie. MDG are expert in recording chamber music and this disc is up to their usual standard. The booklet has useful background information.

Although the performances are attractive, this needs to be seen as a specialist’s disc, since none of the works are those of the great Chopin and even those who want them should probably first turn to recordings of them as written. I have already praised Jan Lisiecki’s recording on DG of the concertante works. For the piano trio, I would like to recommend the version with Garrick Ohlsson at the piano, but it is locked inside a complete Chopin set from Hyperion; however, there are several others. Far the finest of Chopin’s chamber works is the Cello Sonata, of which there are many recordings, often coupled, very suitably, with the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata. For the songs the version by the Polish soprano Urszula Kryger and Charles Spencer, also on Hyperion, has been praised.

Stephen Barber

Handsome Lad Op. 74 No. 8
Troubled Water Op. 74 No. 3
A Maiden’s wish Op. 74 No. 1
Remembrance Op. 74 No. 6
The Ring Op. 74 No. 14
My darling Op. 74 No. 12

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